David Adam '6840 years later, David Adam, LLB 1968, recounts his story

By Olivia Stren /Photograhy by Rémi Thériault

From the Fall/Winter 2013 issue of Nexus.

“I have a friend I play golf with. I won’t identify him except to say that he works for an English-speaking embassy…He thinks your son was executed in the National Stadium on September 19th [1973],” an actor playing a Ford Foundation employee tells Jack Lemmon’s Edmund Horman in Missing. The haunting 1982 film is based on the true story of American freelance journalist Charles Horman, who disappeared in the days following the Chilean military coup of 1973. The aforementioned golfing friend is a Canadian diplomat. “They were quoting me,” David Adam tells me over cappuccinos this past September—on the 40th anniversary of the coup—at an Argentinian café in downtown Toronto. Adam, posted to the Canadian embassy in Santiago, Chile, in the early 70s, recalls the incident that found its way into a Hollywood movie script, saying he’d learned of Horman’s death through a Chilean contact. “I had never met Charles Horman, and by the time I heard about him, he had been killed.”

Adam, who has served as the Canadian ambassador to Ecuador (from 1995 to 1998) and to Panama (from 2002 to 2005) is a tall, eminently dignified man with the deep, authoritative voice of a broadcaster manqué and the silver-haired gentility and politesse of another (more elegant) epoch. On the sunny Sunday afternoon of our meeting, Adam is driving in from London, Ontario, on his way back to his home in Ottawa after a golfing weekend. He explains that he’d be delighted to meet me anywhere as he’ll be arriving by “motor car.” Adam coolly recounts his experience of the coup, as if he were still talking about Missing, as though the experience were somehow the stuff of Hollywood studios. “It was a riveting experience,” Adam says “I don’t want to appear foolhardy or callous. But I felt like a spectator at some kind of spectacle.” Adam, however, provided far more than an audience to the aftermath of the coup.

Adam grew up in north Toronto, graduated from U of T law school in 1968 and joined the Department of External Affairs the same year. “I would mislead you if I told you that I had a notion of serving my country,” Adam says about what inspired him to join the foreign service. “I didn’t have any great patriotic zeal to further or advance the interests of Canada.” Rather, it was a youthful restlessness and curiosity to see the world. His inaugural post was in the far-flung land of New York City. But after a year and half in Manhattan, Adam was dispatched to New Delhi for a few years. And on September 1st, 1972, Adam landed in the Chilean capital, assuming his post as the first secretary for economic development. Salvador Allende was the elected president (if only with 36 percent of the vote) and the leader of a left-wing bloc, smacking the country at the centre of the Cold War between Russia and the U.S. Tasked with assisting Canadian companies to buy and sell goods and services, Adam recalls a typical day at the office: a meeting between Thomas Bata (who owned factories and distribution companies in Chile) and the Chilean minister of finance (who was charged with nationalizing foreign companies). “The minister arrived with three Cuban bodyguards armed to the teeth. He sat down and put a gun on the table,” Adam recalls. “I said, ‘Mr. Minister, I don’t think it’s necessary for you to put a gun on the table…later, Mr. Bata and I went for lunch and he said, ‘David, it was very kind of you to intervene. But I assure you that I was not afraid of that man. My father had to negotiate with Adolf Hitler and I had to negotiate with Joseph Stalin.’” Adam summarizes the incident by way of extravagant understatement: “It wasn’t exactly a smooth-running government at the time.”

“People will come up to me and say, ‘You risked your career.’ I didn’t think it was such a big deal. We did what we had to do at the time.”

While the government became increasingly radicalized, the population increasingly divided and the middle classes increasingly dissatisfied, women took to the streets in what the Latin Americans call the ‘March of the Casseroles’ women marching the city and banging in protest on their saucepans. Amidst this unrest, Adam recalls the most difficult thing to deal with at the time: “There was no food—for anybody. It was a nightmare,” he says. Financially squeezed, factories shorted the market and ceased shipping to supermarkets. In order to eat, you had to have a source. Adam happened to meet somebody in the ministry of agriculture. “I became the roast beef man. Someone else would meet someone who had a farm and would buy two dozen chickens. He’d become the chicken man. Someone else was the toilet paper man,” he says. “This situation was not sustainable. I certainly came to the conclusion that the military was going to come in. What we thought would happen was what always happens. The military would knock on the president’s door in the middle of the night, and the president would come down in his pajamas. They would say, ‘Thank you, Mr. President, for your service. Here is a first class airline ticket for you and your family to Madrid. Here is a cashier’s cheque for $1 million. Your plane leaves in an hour’.” That did not happen. [Allende had turned down the ‘offer.’]

September 11, 1973: it was a lovely spring day, Adam remembers. Much like September 11th, 2001, the weather was beautiful—the perfection of the climes exaggerating the horror of the ensuing events in its grotesque dissonance. As if even Nature—innocently and clumsily throwing up a pretty backdrop, vulgar in its misplacement—were disarmed. At 8:25 that fresh morning, Adam and his colleagues at the embassy looked out the window and beheld military tanks rolling down the main street. By 12 o’clock, the spring skies were clotted with military helicopters and two rocket-firing British-made aircrafts. Rifle-wielding soldiers shot at and then charged into the presidential palace. As Adam describes smoke-smeared skies and tank-filled streets, he offers calmly: “I never felt fear. We were out of the line of fire.”

Later that evening, Adam and his colleague, another young Canadian diplomat, Marc Dolgin, were escorted back to their homes in Manquehue, a bougainvillea-draped Santiago suburb nuzzling into the foothills of the Andes. “It was a lovely spring evening, and my wife and I are chatting away, preparing our dinner. And suddenly,” Adam says, pausing theatrically, as if describing the menacingly serene opening scene in a thriller, “a knock at the door.” Two Chileans—one a labour leader—explaining that they were being hunted by the military, were desperately seeking shelter. How they located Adam’s home remains mysterious. (Adam’s theory: that he’d once met the labour leader at one of Santiago’s Bata factories.) “It was an easy decision to let them in,” Adam said. But if it was a straight-forward decision from an emotional (not to mention humane) perspective, it was considerably more complicated from a legal one. Canada had not yet established a status for refugees fleeing political persecution. “Human rights were not on the curriculum at the law school in Toronto in the ’60s,” Adam says, laughing, “but Dolgin and I knew that if people were in danger we should provide them succor and safe haven.” By the end of that week, Adam and his wife were harboring eight people; Dolgin and his family were housing seven. Neither knew if their guests would be staying 10 more minutes or 10 more years.

With Adam and Dolgin realizing that their homes didn’t qualify under international law as official government property, and fearing for the safety of their 15 charges, they resolved to take them to a place where they believed they’d have a guaranteed safe haven: Canadian ambassador Andrew Ross’ residence. (Ross and his wife were in Buenos Aires at the time, purchasing a car.) “We basically moved them, one by one in the back of the car, each covered by a blanket,” he says, “but we were nervous. We didn’t know how [Ross’ wife would take the fact that there were more than a dozen people in her house and they might be there for years,” said Adam. If the ambassador and his wife took the news with appropriate understanding, Ottawa was less supportive. “‘You had no authority,’ they said,” Adam recalls. “Well! Tell us something we didn’t know already!” Under existing Canadian policy, political asylum didn’t exist.  Canadians could only legally provide refuge to people who were under so-called hot pursuit. “If people were being chased down the street with soldiers firing at them, only then could we let them in. That was absurd. Some blindfolded bureaucrat came up with that notion. So to hell with it! It was stupid,” he said, “People will come up to me and say, ‘You risked your career.’ I didn’t think it was such a big deal. We did what we had to do at the time.”

As news of the atrocities and bloodshed unfolding at the National Stadium made its way to the Canadian public, the federal government (under pressure from Canada’s NDP) softened its stance and issued orders to Adam and his colleagues to accept more refugees—if they were in deadly danger. With about 50 people knocking on the embassy’s door every day, Adam was charged with having to establish the gravity of the newcomers’ situation. “You’d have a 45-minute conversation with someone who would tell you all the reasons why they’re going to be tortured or assassinated, and you’d have to say, ‘Thank you very much for sharing the litany of evils that is about to befall you, but the answer is no. We’re going to send you into the maelstrom, and you and your wife and children may be dead before you reach the corner.’ So, we said, no to Ottawa. Enough is enough.” Given Adam (and his colleagues’) position, Ottawa dispatched a team to assess the situation. And by November, 200 Chileans—and Brazilians, Argentinians, Ugandans, all escaping the right-wing governments in their own countries—were holed up in an office with two bathrooms that normally accommodated 20 employees. “For two months we fed them and housed them,” Adam said “and even hosted a Christmas dinner, regardless of their faith. They were happy because we brought in turkeys for them.” Soon afterwards, they were all granted safe passage to Canada.

At the end of Missing, Charles Horman’s body is found buried in a wall. Although nobody knows exactly what happened, the truth can’t (tragically) be far off. What we know is Horman was among the estimated 1200 who “disappeared,” and among the estimated 40,000 people who were killed, tortured or imprisoned under Augusto Pinochet’s bloody dictatorship. It’s also estimated that Canada welcomed approximately 7000 Chilean and Latin American refugees after the coup in part by grace of Adam who decided one night 40 years ago to harbour and feed  a couple of strangers. “I was unable to calculate the consequences of what might happen by letting them in,” says Adam, “but they knocked on the door and said ‘The military is going to kill us.’ So I said, ‘Come on in, we’ll give you dinner.’” Adam’s pragmatism and old-fashioned modesty prevents him from casting himself as hero, or from any grandiose acknowledgement of how that decision kindled a change in Canadian policy. “Circumstances dictate policy, as much as policy dictates circumstances,” Adam says. “Out of an acorn a mighty oak did grow.”